Feminism is not about the filling of a pail, but the lighting of a fire

B.N. blog photo

Walking down the red light district in the beautiful city of Amsterdam a few weeks ago, I found myself ‘internally divided’1. Part of me felt outraged at the sight of this young Eastern-European looking girl (not yet woman) selling her body behind a glass window; while the other part of me felt sympathy for that girl who, for all I know, could have been me. I had to convince myself she had been forced into prostitution, I had to tell myself that she had been promised a career as a dancer or a model in Western Europe and ended up here, against her will. Because the very thought that someone could deliberately choose to sell their body makes me uncomfortable. Does consensual prostitution even exist? In my mind it sounds very much like an oxymoron, but what do I know? If it does, I can only think of the ‘Pretty Women’ scenario in which a beautiful poor girl falls in love with a handsome rich man, but how close is Hollywood from the reality, I wonder.

In the same fashion as a wannabe philosopher asks himself: ‘What would Socrates say?’ I asked my wannabe feminist self: ‘What would a feminist say?’ Immediate response: close down the red light district, educate those women and offer them a decent job. Drastic measures and slightly exaggerated response, but you get the idea. Would that be the right thing to do, morally speaking? In the name of whom would you invoke Women’s Human Rights? Wouldn’t you be depriving some of those women of the ability to freely choose what they want to do with their bodies, however uncomfortable that feels to the feminist mind?

My point is, beware of the assumption that every sex worker is under male dominance, the reality is in fact much more complex. And in that case, like in many others, political action could possibly do more harm than good if we don’t act in accordance to the needs of those women, and on a case by case basis. This anecdote is not making a case for or against prostitution, but rather I would like to stress the fact that no matter how uncomfortable and degrading some practices may appear to us, it is important to investigate and understand their complexities, before undertaking any political action.

Through this post I would like to draw attention to the importance of remaining critical regarding the practice of transnational feminism. Transnationalism implies that the national boundaries are crossed, and thus the morality and justice attached to feminist issues are striped out of their cultural context. All voices become one and merge into a strong universal feminist claim. However, since working towards gender equality is all about investigating the power relationships, it is crucial that we question the power dynamics within this universal feminist choir. In other words, who is the solo singer? Is anyone singing playback? And do the lyrics have the same meaning to everyone?

Speaking with one voice can be damaging to the diversity of ideas and opinions, but this doesn’t mean in any way that we should tune out. Rather, it means that we should listen carefully to the music and learn to appreciate the diversity of its melody. Jill Steans2 declared that respect for difference shouldn’t lead to ‘political quietism’, I would like to suggest that it should not lead to ‘political deafness’ either.

I personally think that feminist activism requires a set of shared meanings and assumptions in order to lay strong foundations for action. However, shared meanings and assumptions usually require shared experiences. Only through a deep understanding of other women’s experiences can we start truly identifying to one another. The process of sharing experiences requires being detached enough from oneself to welcome someone else’s point of view. Tolerating the behavior of others, even when we disagree with the morality of it. A difficult exercise that can only be practiced through a cross-cultural dialogue, with all the challenges that it implies. Communication is the key. As Richard Shapcott3 put it:

‘Communication involves not only mutual recognition of the other’s status as both different and like oneself, but also an orientation towards mutual understanding and enlightenment.’

Once this new dialogue has begun, we can stop filling pails with inefficient declarations, and start lighting fires together.

Question for debate: How far do you think international organizations are engaging in this cross-cultural debate for which I just made the case?


1 Vocabulary employed as a reference to: Walzer, Michael, ‘The Divided Self’ in Thick and Thin: Moral Argument at home and abroad, 1994, (London: University of Notre Dame Press)

2 Steans, Jill, ‘Debating women’s human rights as a universal feminist project: defending women’s human rights as a political tool’, Review of international studies, 33, no.1 (January 2007) p.20

3 Shapcott, Richard, ‘Justice, Community and Dialogue in International relations’, 2001, (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press) p.24


About School of Politics and International Relations

This blog has been set up for the students of PO665, Advanced Topics in Politics and International Relations: Global Gender Justice, which is a course for final year Honours students in the School of Politics and International Relations at the University of Kent. As part of their participation in the course, students submit blog posts that examine issues pertaining to gender justice within the family, the community, the state and global society. We aim to explore the extent to which gender inequality within the state has an impact on state behaviour, with a specific focus on state development and state security, and further aim to analyse the effectiveness and limits of international organisations, international human rights instruments, NGOs and activists to bring about greater gender justice.
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